Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category

The Purge: Anarchy

July 21, 2014

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The disappointing thing about the Purge movies is that the marketing makes them look spookier and more radical than they turn out to be. The first one, from last year, used a promising if unoriginal premise — every year in futuristic America, there’s a 12-hour window of officially ignored criminality — as the backdrop for a standard home-invasion thriller. Now The Purge: Anarchy employs the same concept as wallpaper for an action-thriller that swipes alternately from The Warriors and Escape from New York but lacks the style of either.

As the annual Purge is about to kick off, we meet a variety of civilians preparing for the long night. The mother-daughter duo Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul) plan to hole up in their apartment. The troubled young couple Shane (Zach Gifford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are on their way to her sister’s house. A mystery man (Frank Grillo) arms himself and goes out into the chaos. Eventually all these people wind up under the protection of Mystery Man, whose name, Wikipedia informs me, is Leo, even though I don’t think I heard it mentioned in the film.

Somewhere in there is a revolutionary faction opposed to the Purge, but aside from serving as a deus ex machina (both Purge movies are full of last-minute rescues) they don’t amount to much. More is made here of the Purge essentially being an elitist culling of the 99%, with the rich paying to kidnap or hunt the poor for fun. But the politics of this is callow compared to two other recent dystopian thrillers, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The action, on the rare occasions that you can make out what’s happening, is uninspired; the putatively ghastly sight of prowling killers in ironically innocent masks is muted when we find out what they’re really up to. Random cruelty, to me, is scarier than conspiracy theories, which arise from the human need to impose order where there is none. There’s certainly order in the universe of The Purge, which makes the conflict comprehensible and dull and politically questionable even if you’re on the side of the 99%.

By virtue of getting out and about, and having a more varied cast than Ethan Hawke and his family, The Purge: Anarchy packs marginally more entertainment value than its predecessor. Ultimately, though, it’s boring to watch and to think about, and sadly, these movies are meant to be thought about. But they’re overtly political in a way that reminds me of a high-school kid who’s just discovered radicalism. The writer/director of both films is James DeMonaco, who may for all I know have a shelf full of Noam Chomsky, but one of the executive producers is Transformers perpetrator Michael Bay, whose low-budget horror-flick shingle Platinum Dunes is behind the films. Bay is decidedly a one-percenter, and I would reflexively distrust anything supposedly radical with his name on it. These movies are like something that would be shown to the poor folks of Panem in The Hunger Games to pacify them, keep them from actually doing anything.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 13, 2014

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-5At the end of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, most of us were killed off by a man-made virus, while the simians of the world, led by the super-smart chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), took to the trees and set about enjoying life without humans. Now, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s around a decade later; Caesar has set up an enormous community of primates near an abandoned dam in San Francisco. Caesar has taught sign language to his subjects, and some, like him, can even speak (I agreed to forget that apes can’t physically speak no matter how smart they are). But there are, it turns out, some humans nearby, and they want to reactivate the dam to get the power back on.

It’s a simple conflict of interests, but the characters on either side are written with an appealing depth. We can see and empathize with all viewpoints. The humans’ leader (Gary Oldman), for instance, who wants to decimate the apes if they won’t allow access to the dam, is not a mustache-twirling sadist but simply a frightened and grieving man charged with protecting his small pocket of humanity. On the other side, the intelligent and peaceable Caesar has a scarred and badass adviser, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who hates humans because they tortured him in the lab. There’s a chilling moment when Caesar refers to “human work” in the dam, and an enraged Koba points to each of his scars, grunting “Human…work! Human…work! HUMAN…WORK!” in a rising line of disgust, and we think, Well…yeah…hard to argue with that.

Caesar is heroic and noble and, as a result, sort of dull next to Koba, who becomes the movie’s anti-hero. He’s sardonic, even satirical — he dupes a couple of idiotic gun-toting humans by engaging in what I can only call simian minstrelsy — and remorselessly vicious. He scares us, and yet the sight of him on horseback wielding two machine guns is inescapably exciting. We’re seeing primal fury, pain, revenge. Koba does evil things in the name of eradicating what he sees as the key threat to his, well, people. In outline it’s the same MLK/Malcolm X conflict we saw between Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men films, but it feels more real here, the guilt more intimate, because in the real world there are no superpowered mutants but there certainly are monkeys who continue to be experimented on and subjected to agony in our labs. The new Apes films show the chickens coming home to roost: how long can humans deal stinging blows to nature before nature bites back?

So Dawn becomes something of a war movie, or a pre-war movie, because we’re told that the humans have succeeded in contacting the military, and the next Apes will no doubt be the big throwdown. But here, at least, we’ve sown the seeds for Caesar’s making good on his earlier promise, “Apes do not want war. But we will fight if we must.” Caesar is quite the speechmaker, to the point where he can hold a decent conversation with the kinder-hearted of the humans, such as Jason Clarke as a more temperate leader (he’s Oldman’s right-hand man, in an inversion of the Caesar-Koba dynamic) and Keri Russell as a doctor who tends to sick or wounded apes. Caesar knows there are good humans, and doesn’t have a problem using the language of the enemy, since he doesn’t see them as such. Koba uses English sneeringly, or when he needs to be heard above the din of battle; he has a screechy, ugly speaking voice that suggests English tastes bad in his mouth.

Dawn is confidently directed by Matt Reeves, who made Cloverfield better than it had to be and Let Me In better than I’d expected a remake of Let the Right One In to be. Here he makes a Planet of the Apes sequel way better than it has any right to be, slowing down to capture moments between human and human, between ape and ape, between ape and human — these moments are the spine of the action. When the apes, led by the shrieking Koba, go to battle with the humans, it’s both electrifying and saddening. We’re there for what the poster — ape on horseback waving a gun — promises, but what leads to that visual is a nauseating tangle of grief and pain and mutual distrust. Dawn will be put to work as a stand-in for any current intractable conflict — I’ve already seen the ape/human conflict compared to the Palestinian/Israeli mess. But it feels more elemental than that. Humans, by accident of evolution, became the alphas on Earth, the apex predators, with every other species reduced to the insulted and the injured. Those who rush to find real-world political analogues are perhaps willfully ignoring what Koba so simply and eloquently refers to as human work.

Snowpiercer

July 5, 2014

20140705-190719.jpgThe morosely spectacular Snowpiercer shouldn’t be taken literally. Here is an allegorical science-fiction epic that unfolds aboard a massive train, streaking through the snow-clotted wasteland that used to be civilization. (In July 2014, the movie tells us, we pumped some super-coolant into the atmosphere to curb global warming; it worked too well. Oops.) The poorest folks are stuck in the “tail” of the train, while the one-percenters live it up near the front. A few brave 99-percenters, led by Chris Evans as the bearded, sullen Curtis, decide to move ahead car by car. That’s the movie. It is a thing of pure cinematic beauty, the movie you want in your deck when arguing for the artistic potential of action films. If you must, it’s Runaway Train meets Brazil — Kurosawa and Gilliam, together at last.

It can’t be coincidence, either, that Snowpiercer features a character named Gilliam (John Hurt), an ancient sage minus an arm and a leg, for reasons we eventually discover. Some of the details in the world-building here are so odd they feel about as realistic as anything else; like the director Bong Joon-ho’s previous breakout hit The Host, and indeed like much of South Korean cinema, Snowpiercer is a highly unstable mix of action-flick grimness and surreal monkeyshines. Tilda Swinton, for example, trots into the proceedings with horse teeth and ugly glasses as an officious marshal who explains that the poor are a shoe, and therefore do not belong on the head. Even she looks normal, though, when we reach the train car where children learn the wonders of the man who built the train, a lesson as told by a pregnant teacher (Alison Pill) who packs a machine gun and trills happily at a piano.

Snowpiercer rattles and hums with visionary life, front-loaded with economical character moments, as The Host was, so that by the time we reach the action, it means something. Violence is not cool or a joke to Bong Joon-ho; it ruins lives and cuts down characters we’ve come to like. This sets his work aside from, and high above, the glib head-bashing in Gareth Evans’ Raid films. The fights are not cleverly choreographed — they’re clumsy, gnashing affairs. Bong is more interested in the microcosm represented by the train in each of its cars; a close reader will probably eventually devote more thought to the relevance of the compartments, which lead inexorably to the Kurtz of the piece, Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s architect and god of the engine. Ayn Rand would like him.

Most action films today go down in a bitter, indigestible lump, like the protein blocks we see the poor passengers subsisting on here, made out of ground-up cockroaches. The new Transformers atrocity serves up dead roach chunks from sea to shining sea. Snowpiercer tastes and chews like the steak enjoyed in the engine room, nutritious and full-blooded, made of hearty red meat. If the movie were playing on more than a relative handful of screens nationwide, Chris Evans would get deserved props for a haunted anti-hero much removed from Captain America, and the terrific Song Kang-ho, star of The Host (and again playing Go Ah-sung’s father), would take his place as a wooly icon to shelve alongside Toshiro Mifune and Runaway Train‘s Jon Voight.

The reason so many of us critics are going slightly nuts over Snowpiercer is that, like many foreign films, it does so effortlessly what Hollywood has mostly forgotten how to do. It tells a simple story swollen with symbol and meaning, side dishes which we can either feast on or disregard. It’s edited not for inane adrenaline but for emotional impact, suspense, dread, awe. This hurtling microcosm, cleaving through an uninhabitable void, is a world unto itself, filled with desperate heroics and callous escapism and everything inbetween. As for the gentle-faced Bong Joon-ho, he is very much in the Guillermo del Toro mold, a storyteller who burrows around in genre and tries to expand it from within. Bong has also assumed the mantle of Terry Gilliam in more ways than one: For his troubles, and his vision, distributor Harvey Weinstein has punished Bong’s film by releasing it in a trickle. Bong refused to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer, so Weinstein has made it so that most of the people who would like to see it on the big screen — where it demands to be experienced — won’t be able to. Weinstein should no longer pretend to care about film, and Bong should no longer do business with vulgarians like Weinstein.

Godzilla (2014)

May 18, 2014

godzillaWe begin with a perhaps naïve question: What, if anything, does Godzilla mean to us today? Surely he means something different than he meant to the Japanese sixty years ago, when he made his screen debut as Gojira. For the Japanese audience, Gojira was a radioactive Jungian shadow. For us, driving blithely to the multiplex as the ice caps melt, Godzilla means … warm-weather spectacle, I guess. The new Godzilla pays some visual homage to various worldwide disasters of recent years, but what are we supposed to think or feel about the catastrophes? Nothing, because our thoughts and feelings are perfectly irrelevant. Things will happen, nature will balance itself, the planet may be fine but a great many forms of life on earth may come out in the wash. It’s Noah all over again, appending “zilla” to “the wrath of God.”

According to the new film, Godzilla and the gigantic creatures he battles (known as “MUTOs”) were not born in the crossfire hurricane of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The MUTOs are ancient animals that feed on radiation; Godzilla is an ancient animal that feeds on the MUTOs. We, therefore, are not complicit in creating them, though our many nukes do attract the MUTOs, who seek somewhere nice to chow down, mate, and spawn. A certain nihilism darkens this Godzilla and puts it within atomic-breath distance of the original Gojira. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim last summer declared boisterously that the apocalypse was cancelled, thank you very much, and that we would band together to punch monsters in the face. Godzilla ’14 bends over backward trying to find stuff for its human characters to do besides take shelter or die. Here, the apocalypse may be averted, but cancelled? — well, it’s not even on the bubble.

For a long time — longer than some viewers may like — we get trembles and intimations of the monsters, nothing more. Then the big guy shows up, and his prolonged roar has a cleansing chthonic power. That sound, like an especially intense thunderstorm, seems to rip the very atmosphere open sharply. Godzilla is here to fight the monsters, though not on our behalf; he really doesn’t care if the MUTOs’ deaths benefit us, nor does he fret if he inadvertently kills several thousand of us while chasing his prey. To the extent that Godzilla doesn’t actively pursue our destruction, he’s on our side. We and our big buildings — well, actually tiny buildings, comparatively — just get in his way.

Depending on the theater at which you see Godzilla, and in which format (2D or 3D), you might not get what you came for. In several of the fight sequences, director Gareth Edwards films the action from a human’s-eye street level, or shows it on TV monitors, or shuts doors on it. This you-are-there gambit is witty. But later, when Edwards’ camera pulls back to give us a full-on view of the carnage, much of it is obscured by smoke or rain or the darkness of night. Poking around online, I find that some viewers are reporting that it’s hard to see what’s going on, and others haven’t had a problem at all, so it could be projectionist apathy specific to certain theaters. Your best bet might be to take in Godzilla at a reputable IMAX venue.

I enjoyed what I could see of the monster mash, and I see that I haven’t talked much at all about the puny humans. Well, each actor represents something via one note. Bryan Cranston is Paranoia and Panic. His soldier son Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Stoic Heroism, while Taylor-Johnson’s nurse wife Elizabeth Olsen is Worry and Nurture. Ken Watanabe shuffles through every so often, repping Quiet Resignation, accompanied by Sally Hawkins, who Stands Around Pointlessly. Actually, the entirety of humanity Stands Around Pointlessly here and in most other Godzilla films, but human audiences are assumed to be so narcissistic as to need human characters to watch onscreen while waiting, and waiting, for the star to come in for his close-up.

Transcendence

April 20, 2014

20140420-203047.jpgIn the slack and dozy sci-fi drama Transcendence, Johnny Depp speaks in the same mechanical drone when he’s human as when his consciousness exists only as a series of bits and bytes. Depp is Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher who has already “uploaded” the mind of a monkey to a supercomputer in his lab. When he’s shot by an anti-AI terrorist group, Will’s mind is likewise digitally preserved, and he gets his partner and wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) to put him up on the internet, as though he were a kitten video someone could post on YouTube. Gee, does that mean Will is responsible for the recent Heartbleed virus?

Transcendence is a goofball futuristic think piece without an eyedropper’s worth of (intentional) humor in it. The well-meaning Will, it turns out, loses his humanity once he dies and is reincarnated as a ghost in the machine. He games the stock market to bankroll a vast facility to pipe more power into himself. This power he uses to work on nanotechnology that saves people’s lives but also connects them to his consciousness. In his delusions of benevolent AI godhood, Will doesn’t realize he’s ramping up to a planet entirely jacked into himself — and, oh yes, he’s starting to pursue the new hobby of creating humans.

This would all fit better in a Wired op-ed than in a movie, especially one that loses track of its protagonist so quickly and focuses on the various people, including Evelyn, who debate over whether Will should be stopped or, indeed, can be stopped. The debaters also include Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany as fellow researchers and Kate Mara as a dour leader of the anti-AI movement. We’re meant, I think, to be frightened by Will’s overstepping human ethical bounds, but Depp stays so bland throughout that Will never really seems a threat. And the script, by Jack Paglen, short-circuits itself by beginning five years after the movie’s events, effectively spoiling its own ending.

This is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who served as cinematographer on almost all of Christopher Nolan’s films (Nolan takes an executive-producer credit here). Usually cinematographers-turned-directors at least manage a decent-looking first film, but Transcendence is drab and grayish, with occasional abstract images of rain falling (to be fair, this does assume some thematic relevance later) but otherwise as grim as a London afternoon. The movie has zero momentum or urgency — somewhere around the one-hour mark, we get a title declaring “two years later,” and we sink into our seats and wonder why Will’s facility has been allowed by the government to continue unimpeded for two years. The forces gathered against Will are amazingly ineffectual and dithering. They seem to let things go so far because if they didn’t it would be a short movie.

The dullness reaches new lows during the climax, which involves gunplay yet manages to be anticlimactic, with Evelyn begging Will to upload her into the system so she can plant a virus there. Will’s minions, all of whom have been healed by his nanotech, fall to the bullets and are never heard from again. What happens to, say, the blind guy whose sight was restored? Does he die a blind man? Does he die at all, given that the virus shuts down every computer on earth (again, this isn’t a spoiler, due to the idiotic opening scene)? Or does the nanotech heal the bullet-wounded before the system shuts down? Transcendence ultimately has less regard for common humanity than its putative hero-turned-villain ever does. It says that the lives saved by technology, and the countless lives blighted by the global blackout, mean nothing, and government agents and terrorists unite against a demigod that never seems that bad. The movie’s message is as muddled and scrambled as Will’s source code.

Divergent

March 23, 2014

20140323-202716.jpgThere are five factions in the futuristic society of Divergent, and it just figures that the heroine, Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley), would pick the Dauntless faction. The Dauntless are society’s warriors and protectors, and thus are subject to grueling training designed to test an initiate’s courage. When not training, the Dauntless while away the afternoons by running around, climbing things, and jumping off other things. What if Tris had chosen the Erudites, the smarties of society? Would her training consist of harrowing, highly cinematic algebra quizzes? Or what if she’d opted for Amity, the people who work the land and are noted for their kindness? Would we have an $80 million blockbuster about how Tris must face the horrific final test — being nice to cranky customers at a farmers’ market?

As it is, Divergent might as well be called Dauntless, because for most of the running time, Tris, who was born into the Abnegation faction (selfless people who help others), takes many beatings and worries incessantly about not making the cut in her Dauntless training. (Those who flunk out become “factionless,” denied the option to return home or to try their luck in another faction.) Tris, though, is a special snowflake: she’s a Divergent, meaning that she — gasp! — has more than one trait. She could fit in with Abnegation, Dauntless, or Erudite. So she’s really dangerous to this post-apocalyptic society that has arranged everyone according to dominant trait to “preserve the peace.”

I don’t really get what any of that has to do with peace. Maybe it’s explained in Veronica Roth’s trilogy of books, which I haven’t read and, judging by my boredom with the movie, will probably skip. It’s really just an elaborate metaphor for Being Your Own Beautiful Self, which apparently goes over well with readers of a certain tender age. Divergent has been compared to The Hunger Games, but at least Suzanne Collins’ fantasy had some sort of real-world relevance, even edging up to social satire. But Divergent‘s concerns seem largely solipsistic — there’s little or no larger meaning to it at all. Unlike Katniss Everdeen, who survived and became an inspiration due to a combination of luck, guts, brains and compassion, Tris just hits the genetic lottery, which is hazardous to her in the short term but will likely shake out with her as the heroine of a newly diverse and less regimented society by the third movie.

There’s little or no filmmaking excitement in Divergent, either. The director is Neil Burger, a journeyman hack who merely points and shoots, never pausing to take in beauty or terror. There’s a tiny bit of both in sequences in which Tris and, later, her Dauntless trainer and love interest Four (Theo James) submit to chemically-induced hallucinations of their deepest fears. Apparently Tris is scared of birds, fire, and drowning, while Four dislikes heights. The hallucinations at least pack a slight visual-surreal charge mostly absent from the rest of the movie, which unfolds in the gunmetal-blue Dauntless quarters or in sterile offices. I sensed no connection between Burger and this material, no urgency on his part to tell this story and open up its truths.

The gentle-featured Woodley is fine and humble as the heroine, and Kate Winslet brings cold efficiency to her performance as Jeanine Matthews, the Erudite leader who wants to overthrow the Abnegations’ control over society. I didn’t get that, either: the smart people want to go to war with the selfless people? Are this movie’s politics insane, or just nonexistent? I don’t see brainiacs like Neil deGrasse Tyson gunning for people like the Dalai Lama. Divergent also verges on saying the military is a mindless hive brainwashed by the Harvard-educated ruling class, which is more cynical than anything in The Hunger Games and an insult to ex-military men like Daniel Ellsberg. In short, the divvied-up society presented here makes no internal or subtextual sense. It doesn’t refer to anything other than a generic “fight the Man” theme — and, of course, the Man here is an intelligent woman. So, despite its kick-ass heroine, the movie doesn’t really diverge much from the standard path of Hollywood sexism at all.

Her

January 13, 2014

her-FilmAre four feature films (and a multitude of innovative music videos) enough evidence to declare someone a master? Her, a hushed and vaguely futuristic love story, finds writer-director Spike Jonze at four for four, after 1999’s Being John Malkovich, 2002’s Adaptation, and 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are. All of these movies grapple with consciousness and identity while sustaining moods of playful inquiry, like droll philosophers spinning thought experiments. Her is what’s sometimes called “soft” science fiction, focusing on characters and emotion rather than hardware and convoluted world-building; it’s also a romance that questions what love is or can be. In this day-after-tomorrow universe, a man can say his girlfriend is his computer’s operating system and nobody finds it creepy.

Jonze creates a reality where the protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), makes his living by writing love letters for those who don’t have words of their own. This idea of surrogate affection is a major theme of the movie; Her, like 2001, sees a future in which technology has vastly improved modes of communication but humans are still essentially monkeys who can’t talk, beholden to the archaic operating systems in their heads. Theodore is separated from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and is dragging his feet on signing the divorce papers; he doesn’t want to let go of his identity as a husband, or at least as a man found worthy of being a husband. He’s trapped in his own head, using words to live a romantic dream vicariously through his clients.

Then he finds out about the latest hot thing — OS1, an operating system that can learn and respond and grow like a person, like Siri with a soul. Theodore’s new OS christens herself Samantha and has the smoky, cheerful voice of Scarlett Johansson, who along with the mopey but hopeful Phoenix builds one of the strangest and most honest romantic rapports in recent memory. Much of the time we’re watching Phoenix alone on the screen, but the movie invites us to envision Samantha alongside him (and she doesn’t necessarily look like Johansson in our heads). Samantha enjoys organizing Theodore’s life, and he enjoys her company; they take each other out for “Sunday adventures,” with Samantha seeing through the camera in Theodore’s handheld device.

With someone like Spike Jonze at the helm, we feel reassured that Her won’t go anywhere predictable or add stupid supposedly-comedic complications to the story, and it doesn’t. It sticks to its premise and goes deeper and expands there. Samantha wants more; she feels slighted by not being a physical presence in Theodore’s life. The surrogacy motif recurs when Samantha hires a woman (Portia Doubleday) to be Samantha’s body, and the episode is both funny and saddening — Theodore can’t get out of his head, can’t reconcile the physical woman in front of him with the Samantha in his imagination. It creeps him out on a number of levels, and the woman departs tearfully. We almost want to follow her into her own movie; we want to know what kind of woman (or man) wants to be a physical surrogate for an OS. Meanwhile, Theodore is more or less ignoring a real physical woman in his view, his old friend Amy (Amy Adams), a videogame developer, who has forged a friendship with her ex-husband’s female OS. All of this feels emotionally plausible; Jonze never pushes it into inelegant farce.

Her takes the premise to its logical conclusion, which involves evolution and the digital shade of philosopher Alan Watts (voice by Brian Cox). That’s a key to the movie right there: Watts liked to peg himself as “a philosophical entertainer,” and that seems to be what Spike Jonze is up to. Jonze also writes sharp dialogue between Samantha and Theodore, emphasizing how unevolved he is and how fast she’s growing past him. Her ends on a sad but hopeful note, lingering on a shot of two humans dwarfed by the technological cityscape — monkeys in thrall to the Monolith. As for Samantha, or the higher consciousness, Watts put it best: “A cat sits until it is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away.”

Gravity

October 5, 2013

Sandra-Bullock-in-Gravity-2013-Movie-Image-2We could easily come up with a few legitimate complaints about Gravity. Emotionally, it’s a little pat. The film’s tagline — “Don’t let go” — resolves into that time-honored Hollywood bromide about life always finding a way. And along about the fifth or sixth crisis faced by Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), we may think a better title for the movie might be The Perils of Sandra. Despite its comforting aspects, though, Gravity is a work of techno-art, with images of humbling grandeur and scenes almost painful in the depth of horror they evoke. The film’s climactic reassurances, though welcome on some level after the bone-shaking ride we’ve had, feel a little soft because the true takeaway from the experience is this: Space is very, very unforgiving. Don’t fuck with it.

We’re up there above Earth, floating and bobbing and revolving, along with Dr. Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Stone is tinkering around on the outside of the space shuttle Explorer; this is her first time in space, and she’s nervous and nauseated. This is Kowalski’s last mission, and he scoots around in his Manned Maneuvering Unit, his mood jocular and calming. Then the Explorer receives ominous news: the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites, and the debris is heading for the Explorer with a powerful quickness. As the death-junk approaches, the music (by Steven Price) becomes a menacing paradox, huge yet needlingly intimate. This crap is coming for you, the score says, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Soon enough, the Explorer becomes a piñata, communication to Houston is cut off, Stone finds herself reeling through the inky void, and Kowalski doesn’t have a lot of juice left in his MMU. And you thought you had problems.

At first glance a minimalist survival nail-biter on the order of, say, Cast Away or Open Water, Gravity ratchets up the terror by observing the pitiless logic of physics. In this zero-gravity reality, people bounce off each other and go spinning heedlessly into hard, unyielding objects; the physicality is a little overwhelming — the smallest movement can have massive consequences. For every action, it seems in space, there is a wildly inequal and opposite reaction. To deal with this, career astronauts must possess a certain serenity under enormous danger and a certain outlook on life and death, perhaps born of seeing the world from a literally different perspective than most of us do. Clooney’s Kowalski never loses his cool, continuing to urge Stone on with lulling optimism even when his own situation looks bleak.

Some have lampooned Gravity as “Sandra Bullock screaming for 90 minutes.” I’m sorry if the marketing has made it seem that way — and most of what you’ve seen in the commercials happens in the first half hour — but that’s unfair to Bullock, an amiable comic actress who has been impressive in dramatic roles, never more so than here. Stone is our avatar; we share her fright and her awe. Bullock finds the spark in a woman who long ago, in the wake of a tragedy, gave herself up for dead. Gravity is, in part, about how Stone learns to value her life again, and that’s a bit of a bummer — we intuit her turn rather than feeling it. But that’s not Bullock’s fault; the script only has so much time to flesh out Stone’s background. When Stone starts to feel alive, Bullock becomes more animated; we can almost feel the heat of her flesh where the blood is flowing again. (Maybe it’s intellectual rejuvenation — rather than feeling powerless, Stone has a hallucinatory epiphany that these are mechanical problems she can think her way around and solve.)

Gravity is perhaps the magnum opus from director Alfonso Cuarón, who hasn’t made a feature since 2006’s Children of Men; he spent much of the intervening time working on this film. This director adores technical challenges, technical wizardry; the carnage-spattered long-take chase scene in Children of Men is deservedly legendary, and he lets his shots here sprawl and breathe and gather dread. Gene Siskel’s statement about Who Framed Roger Rabbit (“I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t want to know”) applies just as accurately to the kind of magic Cuarón weaves. Not merely a cold craftsman, Cuarón shares with his confederates Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu a tough-minded humanism: people are imperfect and inhabit a hostile environment but strive anyway, and the striving itself is worth noting and making movies about. Nothing feels sadistic about the way Cuarón tightens the screws on his characters. He wants to view them in extremis — and more extreme than outer space you can’t get — because that’s where the story is. Gravity has some soft spots, probably best blamed on the marketplace demands of making a movie at the $100 million level, but it’s still a masterpiece, with appropriate respect for the vastness of the chessboard and the smallness of the pawns who can navigate it.

Riddick

September 7, 2013

Karl-Urban-and-Vin-Diesel-in-Riddick-2013-Movie-Image-600x331The anti-hero Riddick, subject of three movies, an animated short, and numerous video games, is probably best suited to animated shorts and video games. I haven’t played the games, but I did enjoy Dark Fury, the 35-minute Peter Chung toon that served as a bridge between 2000’s Pitch Black and 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. Like Conan the barbarian, Riddick is a surly loner and killer who gets pulled into adventures wherever he travels. As played by Vin Diesel, Riddick is also a cold cod whose purpose in life seems to be avoidance. He’s always being pursued — by mercenaries, by Necromongers, by slithery creatures. His function is to send his pursuers abruptly to the next life and then swagger onward. Such a character might fare nicely on a weekly animated series for young adults (or in a monthly comic book, where Conan has thrived on and off for decades), but he doesn’t hold a live-action film together very strongly.

The title of Riddick’s new adventure, just straight-up Riddick, is likely meant to signify a new simplicity, or, rather, a throwback to the old simplicity of Pitch Black. After all, The Chronicles of Riddick was a cluttered and garish thing, with respected actors like poor Judi Dench nattering on about Necromongers or the Underverse while Vin Diesel scowled in the shadows, his silver corneae glowing like the eyes of a sullen cat. Riddick dispenses with the reheated fantasy elements of its predecessor and takes Riddick back to gritty sci-fi, pitting him against phallic, venomous critters and then against two competing bands of mercenaries. Along the way he raises a dingo-like puppy, and if you remember what generally happens to people or animals Riddick grows to care about, you’ll know not to get attached to the dingo-like puppy.

Riddick is leaner and meaner than Chronicles, but that doesn’t necessarily translate as “more fun.” Once again, as in Pitch Black, Riddick defends himself — and, incidentally, the motley group he happens to be thrown in with — from monsters. It feels pointless; by the end, Riddick is better off than he was at the start, but nothing in particular has happened to change his character. He’s the same growly deep-bass sociopath he was in Pitch Black thirteen years ago. At least in Dark Fury and Chronicles he had an androgynous girl, grown up to be a bitter woman warrior, to care about and to worry that she might end up like him. Riddick seems like a side adventure, and the events of the previous movie are blown off in a flashback that puts Riddick back at square one. We feel like idiots for having been asked to invest in the events of Chronicles and in the idea that Riddick had been elevated to a position of importance.

Diesel and series creator/director David Twohy were adamant that Riddick, like Pitch Black, carry an R rating, which allows for a bit of gore and a peekaboo scene that’s so baldly there for fans of Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff that all I could think about was Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz (who fantasized about tubbing with Sackhoff in an episode) wearing out the Blu-ray when it arrived at his home. Sackhoff plays a nerdboy’s idea of a lesbian, a tough chick who beats the crap out of men; her name is Dahl, which phonetically means every guy in the movie appears to be calling her “doll,” and that’s essentially what she is. Aside from Riddick — who spends much of the middle third of the film ominously offscreen — the character who gets the most screen time is Santana (Jordi Molla), the scruffy leader of one of the merc teams. Santana is a dick but at least has some personality; nobody else does.

Vin Diesel, an unabashed fantasy/sci-fi geek, keeps trying to make genre franchises happen. Babylon AD didn’t work for him, and the Riddick series has proceeded in fits and starts — it’s been nearly a decade since the last film, and Diesel, who turned 46 this summer, is very much not getting any younger. He puts a lot of physical effort into these meathead movies he does (Furious 6, for the record, was much more fun), and there’s a valid question as to how much longer he can continue to do so. Diesel started off promisingly — I urge you to seek out his 1994 short film Multi-Facial on YouTube so you won’t think I’m insane when I say he’s really a good actor — but he got sidetracked into dumb Saturday-night blockbusters for teens, and he perhaps needs to stop working out (and stop listening to his agent) and do some genuine acting again. Riddick, which by all indications will be a box-office disappointment, may put the kibosh on at least one going concern that has kept Diesel in lucrative stasis.

The World’s End

August 31, 2013

130823154838-worlds-end-movie-still-story-topOnce again, Edgar Wright has directed the brightest bit of fun in a lugubrious summer. The World’s End starts out as a rueful where-have-the-years-gone comedy in the mold of Grosse Pointe Blank (complete with killer soundtrack) and somehow morphs into a mid-period John Carpenter sci-fi film (complete with stock-still antagonists whose eyes and mouths glow like Christine’s headlights, bisecting the wide frame with blue lens flares). Both movies within this movie are fresh and convivial, though the structure borrows from Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, in which the distracted protagonists were oblivious to the scope of the problem for a comically long time. Here, the problem is people in the town of Newton Haven being replaced by robots who shed blue blood (aristocrats?) and lose their limbs a tad too readily to be the terminators they seem to want to be.

Gary King (Simon Pegg), an alcoholic ne’er-do-well approaching forty, yearns for the golden year of 1990 — the year he and his four best mates from school tried and, alas, failed to drink their way through twelve pubs in a night. Gary contrives to convene the old lads again — Andy (Nick Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) — though they’ve all moved on and become respectable. Gary’s epic idea is to re-enact the pub crawl, and finish it this time. Eventually the lads give in, knowing that arguing with Gary is futile. At the fourth pub in the crawl, it becomes fairly evident that all is not what it seems.

It’s entirely possible that, like Grosse Pointe Blank, The World’s End will resonate most directly and viscerally for those who were Gary’s age or thereabouts at the dawn of the ’90s. The bold strut, early on, of Primal Scream’s “Loaded” (with its bite from Peter Fonda: “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! And we wanna get loaded!”) took me right back to college and assured me I was in good nostalgic hands. But the songs aren’t just Super Sounds of the ’90s; many of the tunes, like the one noted, express the film’s theme of pursuing freedom in the face of authority and conformity. Wright and Pegg, who again cowrote the script, tweak the other four fellows for putting their party days aside, but Gary emerges as the film’s saddest character, a freedom fighter in his own mind who in truth wears the thickest chains.

The movie casts Pegg and Frost against type: in their previous two efforts with Wright, Pegg was the uptight striver and Frost the dissolute screw-up, and here it’s the reverse. The scenes of Gary trying to reconnect with his resentful former best mate Andy play like a scrawnier Falstaff appealing in vain to the fond memories of Prince Hal. Gary is also the right age to have seen, memorized, and worn out the video of Withnail & I, though the film is sensibly never addressed here — we look at Gary and we know he sees himself as Withnail 2.0, sneering in the rain “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?,” though missing the tragic point of that famous scene. Pegg gives us a delusional anti-hero who develops into a deeply flawed hero and eventually, by movie’s end, a bona fide John Carpenter hero.

By turns, The World’s End is better-choreographed than most of what’s been passed off as action this summer; funnier than most comedies this season; and, at times, scarier than most horror films in the last few months — the scene involving Gary’s old flame Sam (Rosamund Pike) and a pair of twins is pretty creepy. It’s a full package of entertainment, genuflecting to the sci-fi of John Wyndham as well as to the cinema of John Carpenter (who adapted Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos). As in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright and Pegg love to mix their British and American pulp influences into one spiky drink. I wasn’t a huge fan of Hot Fuzz, feeling that Wright and Pegg were too smart to go on riffing on other creators’ work, but what they’ve done here feels personal, not so much derivative. There’s a sincere melancholy to it. You literally can’t go home again, nor, apparently, can you drink there the way you once did.


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